The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District received 625 claims for reimbursement for educational materials after settling a class action lawsuit over school fees, district officials said Wednesday. 

Attorney Kevin Shenkman initiated the lawsuit in 2017 on behalf of parents Vivian Mahl and Gina de Baca, who claim that SMMUSD had required students to pay for expensive calculators, field trips and athletic uniforms and therefore violated the constitutional guarantee to a free education. 

The district settled the lawsuit last August, agreeing to reimburse families for supplies they have purchased that the district is obligated to provide and cover the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. Mahl and de Baca each received $5,000.

The settlement also required local schools to publish “free school guarantee” notices in course descriptions and syllabi.

Families with students enrolled in SMMUSD between July 2016 and November 2019, the time period in which Mahl and de Baca say they were charged illegal school fees, were able to file claims for reimbursement until Feb. 10. 

The district provided the claim forms in English and Spanish to more than 12,000 families via mail and email, said SMMUSD spokesperson Gail Pinsker. 

She said the district is now reviewing claims and supporting documents to determine whether families are eligible for reimbursement and may contact families for more information. 

If SMMUSD disputes a claim, it is submitted to a neutral attorney who is well versed in the law concerning the free school guarantee and the California constitution, Pinsker said. The attorney, who has been agreed upon by the plaintiffs and the district, who may also request information from families.

“To date, there is a significantly larger number of disputed claims than expected, and the district’s claim review process has confirmed that many parents were led to believe that they only needed to fill out the form and not provide any supporting documents, which is inaccurate,” Pinsker said.

Earlier this month, 261 parents, students and community members filed an objection to the settlement that asks the court to reject families’ claims for reimbursements unless they can show receipts for the educational materials they purchased. 

Joel Koury, a local attorney with children in SMMUSD schools, said he thinks the plaintiffs should have gone through the district’s complaint process for educational fees rather than initiate an expensive lawsuit. The district created a process to remedy illegal educational fees after a 2010 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit revealed that more than 50 school districts in the state required students to pay for textbooks, art supplies and physical education uniforms.

The objection also urges the court to audit Shenkman’s stated billable hours and cap any attorney fees awarded at $1 per hour. Shenkman is requesting $560,000 from the district for 993.1 hours of work, but said he will donate the majority of his fee to create a scholarship that will fund college tuition for SMMUSD students who have demonstrated a commitment to social and racial justice.

madeleine@smdp.com

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